Last reviewed February 27, 2013
Catch your doctor talking to another doctor and you are likely to hear conversation like this: "…she does have type 2 diabetes but no history of nephropathy, retinopathy or neuropathy …." It is the sort of talk that gives the medical profession a reputation for speaking its own language.
Contrary to what you may have heard or assumed, most of what your doctor is saying is in English — they are just terms used rarely in other settings. Many of these words have a common ending (suffix) that is particularly useful when describing a medical condition.
What Are "Opathies"?
When added to the end of a word, the suffix "-opathy" simply means "disease." The conversational snippet above was about the following conditions:
These three conditions are sometimes called the "triopathies" because they so commonly occur in concert as complications of diabetes.
Other common examples include:
The suffix "opathy" is a general term that covers a wide range of specific diseases; for example, nephritis indicates inflammation of the kidney and is one form of nephropathy.
"Well, Why Didn't You Say So?"
Often patients ask why doctors use terminology that is confusing to the layperson rather than "just using English" to say the same thing. Just yesterday, I received a copy of a letter sent from an ulcer specialist to a patient informing her that she had "intestinal metaplasia" — it's likely she did not know what this meant, and worse, she may have assumed it was something awful. (In fact, it means that cells of one type have been replaced by another type; it is a reason to maintain close follow-up and repeat evaluation, but it is not itself a dangerous condition.)
Asking why technical language is used is certainly a fair question, and one that is often raised in other disciplines, such as the legal profession. After all, there are ways to express the same thing without using these terms. The answers probably depend on the specific term and situation but include the following:
The Bottom Line
If you are not sure what a term means, especially as it relates to your health, ask for an explanation — your health care professional may assume you understand it if you don't speak up! As odd as it may seem, many doctors do not realize they are using terminology that a nonmedical person will not understand because day in and day out, that's how they talk. And recognize that as far as the terminology goes, there is no mystery — just alternative ways of saying things.
From the health care professionals' side, improving communication with patients has become a higher priority in recent years; this is particularly evident in the ways medical education has changed. And effective communication usually means using the patient's language, not "medicalese."
Robert H. Shmerling, M.D., is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.